I feel like I need to remind everyone that this is ostensibly a game blog. I talk a lot about my travels, and people seem to be generally interested in those things, but I started this blog to talk about games and gaming, and I’ve been pretty lax on that for a long time. This entire vacation I’ve avoided talking about anything game-related, with the exception of how Alcatraz is wicked-cool from a dungeon perspective.
So today I’m going to go over every day of this vacation and talk about how that day’s events can translate into an in-game event. Good? Excellent.
Chapter Eight: Fighting the Ocean
The following stat block is for the the Ocean. As a bad guy. Because everyone should have an epic slapping match with the wild blue, yeah? Yeah.
Level 40 Solo
Gargantuan natural animate (aquatic, swarm)
HP 1893; Bloodied 947
Regeneration 20 (if the Ocean takes cold damage, its regeneration deactivates until the end of its next turn.)
AC 51; Fortitude 58; Reflex 48; Will 55
Immune fire, acid, disease, sleep; Resist 20 primal; Vulnerability 25 cold
Saving Throws +5; Action Points 2
O Wave Aura • Aura 1000
Creatures that start their turn within the aura take 20 force damage and ongoing 15 drowning damage (save ends).
C Battering Waves (force) • At-Will
Attack: Close Burst 50 (Targets: creatures in burst); +43 vs. Fortitude
Hit: 2d10 + 17 force damage.
C Tsunami (force) • Recharge 5 6
Attack: Close Burst 100 (Targets creatures in burst); +43 vs. Reflex
Hit: 2d10 + 17 force damage and the Ocean shifts 20 squares.
C Sea of Blood (force, necrotic) • Encounter
Attack: Close Burst 100 (targets creatures in burst); +45 vs. AC
Hit: 2d10 + 17 force and necrotic damage and the target takes 20 ongoing necrotic damage (save ends).
First Failed Saving Throw: The target takes 25 ongoing necrotic damage (save ends).
Second Failed Saving Throw: The target takes 30 ongoing necrotic damage and is slowed (save ends).
Third Failed Saving Throw: The target takes 40 ongoing necrotic damage and is helpless (save ends).
Shifting Tides • Recharge when bloodied.
Effect: The Ocean shifts 20 squares and makes a Battering Waves attack at any point during the move. .
To the Horizon and Beyond • Encounter
Effect: The Ocean spends an action point and gains 600 hit points and shifts 20 squares.
Skills Endurance +38, Intimidate +38, Nature +35
Str 33 (+31)
Dex 27 (+28)
Wis 30 (+30)
Con 36 (+33)
Int 27 (+28)
Cha 36 (+33)
Alignment Languages —
© 2010 Wizards of the Coast LLC, a subsidiary of Hasbro, Inc. All rights reserved. This formatted statistics block has been generated using the D&D Adventure Tools.
Chapter Seven: City Parks
Parks as we currently understand them are a relatively new thing. Originally, rich nobles would own large plots of green space for game hunting. It wasn’t until the late 1800’s that landscapers were commissioned to build public parks in the interest of creating areas for relaxation and exercise. Philanthropic industrialists and landowners often gave parks as gifts to the public, though many were also built through public subscription. The best parks, and those with the most innovative designs, have proven very robust and have continued to adapt to meet the needs of those who use them today.
Most of the societies we use as backdrops for games have technology roughly on par with that of medieval Europe. Parks during this time would be game parks primarily, though the high levels of magic and industry would certainly make parks a realistic inclusion in those games. In a medieval fantasy game, you might find your party asked to aid in the building or designing of a park with particular needs (we want to preserve the local indigenous Flargbargle population, but not have them interact with visitors, you see…), or using a park as a location for adventure. Parks are, in many ways, quite like classic dungeons. There are branched paths, awesome conflict locations, and lots of places to hide. They could also be an area near the party’s home base, and a constant source of trouble, should those Flargbargles decide to get out and light things on fire.
For more modern games, from the Victorian-style leanings of steampunk-inspired worlds to the 1920’s Cthulhu weird horror games, parks are an awesome way to shake up the scenery some without leaving the urban textures of the setting. Some parks may even serve as a source of inspiration for adventures in these milieus. As an example:
This is Birkenhead Park. It is one of the more impressive parks created by Mr. Joseph Paxton in 1847. It is, according to the good folks at Wikipedia, the first publically funded civic park in Britain. It inspired landscape architect Frederick Olmstead to incorporate many of its elements in New York’s Central Park and Sefton Park in Liverpool.
It is not well known for its links to the paranormal, other areas Paxton created are. The Crystal Palace has been the home to a number of strange goings on, the Conservative Wall is likely haunted, and the Emperor Fountain’s charm is the site of at least a dozen cult rituals.
Birkenhead Park is no different, except that it is perhaps more subtle. Locked away in a secret crypt somewhere in this park is an amulet that, when combined with its counterparts in Central Park and Sefton Park, will release the Demon Azzulat from its prison beneath the Conservative Wall. Paxton knew this, and made sure to incorporate keys to recapture the demon hidden in his various works. Now a cult has begun searching for the amulets, and one has already been found. It’s up to you and yours to stop them.
Chapter Six: Cultures Within Cities
I think one of the greatest problems with role-playing game descriptions of places is that we tend to lump things together in a strange way. This country is where the evil-bad sorcerers live. This kingdom is like Iowa, but with more wizards. Everyone in this duchy has a pet that is also their soul that is also their source of Power. It’s not unlike the Star Wars planet problem. Hoth is the icy winter planet. Dagoba is the swamp planet. Coruscant is the city planet. It’s all rather silly, because for a planet to bear human-like life, that planet needs to have diversity, but for the sake of easy storytelling, it’s just a lot simpler to have your whole planet made up of a single thing. So instead of journeying to the swamp, you journey to the swamp planet, and that makes enough sense to us as far as internal consistency is concerned that we don’t really think about it.
But planets have a lot of things going on in them, and as gamers we have a lot more opportunity to check those things out. I mean, we have hours and hours to explore the various aspects of a planet or, in a fantasy setting, a city or country.
San Francisco is a city made up of a bunch of smaller cities. Chinatown, for instance, boasts the world’s largest ethnic Chinese population currently living outside of China. The Castro has a totally different feel to it than Market street, and Nob Hill is a very different place from Fisherman’s Wharf. Each of these neighborhoods is tied together by proximity, language (mostly), government and the like, but hanging out on Castro street eating lunch is a very different experience than hanging out on Sutter street having lunch.
I hope this chart helps.
- Is filthy mess
- Is clean as a whistle
- Is entirely vegetarian
- Is incredibly conservative
- Is incredibly liberal
- Is owned by thieves
- Is owned by industrialists/wizards
- Is owned by noblewomen
- Believes in a local religion very strongly
- Believes in a local religion more than usual
- Dislikes a local religion more than usual
- Dislikes a local religion very strongly
- Likes a minority group more than usual
- Dislikes a minority group more than usual
- Will riot at the slightest provocation
- Will riot with the right motivation
- Is incredibly peaceful
- Requires incredible motivation to riot
- Is paved with local rock that is hard to find elsewhere
- Is paved with rock that is hard to find here
- Has more shops than usual
- Has less shops than a community of this size requires
- Has a strong police presence
- Has no police presence
- Has unique architecture
- Speaks a strange dialect
- Speaks a language different from the surrounding neighborhoods
- Eats a food different from the surrounding neighborhoods
- Includes a group of people normally outcast in this society (goblins, elves, the Amish)
- Produces a specific food better than anyone else in the world
- Produces a specific food that no one else really likes, but is very popular here (onion cakes)
- Hates a group of people normally included in this society
- Has a horrible pest problem
- Has a horrible disease problem
- Is more hilly than the surrounding area
- Is less hilly than the surrounding area
- Is more swampy than the surrounding area
- Is completely barren of vegetation
- Is completely overgrown with vegetation
- Is composed of a racial group that is a very tight-knit community
- Is composed of a racial group that is warring within itself
- Is mostly vampires
- Has a lot more children than adults
- Has a lot more old people than young people
- Has a lot more young adults than old people or children
- Is artistic
- Is Spartan
- Is Sparta
- Requires a strange mode of transportation to reach it
- Requires a resource that is difficult to find in the local area
- Has a local group of heroes and disdains outsiders
- Is actively recruiting a group of heroes to represent and protect it
- Has a local group of monsters and disdains outsiders
- Is actively recruiting a group of monsters to harrass and bother it
- Eats a sentient humanoid race as a delicacy
- Eats a sentient humanoid race as a staple
- Has a school for wizards at its heart
- Has a school for fighters at its heart
- Has a school for bards at its heart
- Is the university district
- Is the college district
- Is the theatre district
- Is the financial core
- Centers around a dock, port or gate
- Is home to a bird sanctuary
- Is the most commercial district and thus attracts the most vagrants
- Has a ridiculous number of magic item shops, some legit and others fake
- Has a horrible reputation but is actually a nice place
- Has a great reputation but is actually where a lot of murders happen
- Has a great reputation and is a really nice place, but a lot of murders happen there
- Is a great sea-serpent/gryphon/unicorn watching spot
- Is controlled by a local cult
- Is controlled by a local comedian
- Is controlled by a local chef
- Is controlled by a player character’s mother
- Is a gambling district, full of well-run casinos
- Is a gambling district, full of run down cheat-houses
- Is a gambling district where the gambling isn’t for money
- Is the best place in the country to buy work pants
- Is the best place in the country to buy magic weapons or armor
- Is the worst place in the country
- Has the best public education in the city
- Has a public education system that is terrible, but one plucky teacher is making a difference
- Has a public education system that is misinforming its students
- Has no public education system at all and is proud of that thank you very much
- Has a taboo about shoes
- Has a taboo about kangaroos
- Has a taboo about sloughs
- Has a taboo about schools
- Has a taboo about imperfect rhymes
- Is more sexually open-minded
- Is more sexually closed-minded
- Is incredibly boring
- Is known for its hair styles
- Is known for its unique fashion sense
- Has a unique power source
- Has its own mayor, town council and bylaws
- Has an alderman that is an animal (not anthropomorphic, just a bear in a fez)
- Is missing
- Is a lie
Chapter Five: Expanding the Dungeon Epiphany
Dungeons in medieval Europe usually happened in towers, and for good reason. A tower is hard to escape, easy to guard, and manages to make a lot of concerns like ventilation and sunlight (needed to keep prisoners relatively healthy) from becoming actual problems.
In the modern era, we have perfected dungeons. There are no dungeons ever created that are more horrible than the prisons currently occupied by Cuban criminals. It has taken centuries of dedicated work and design to create conditions as horrible as those we expect modern convicts to live in, and that is a pretty terrifying thing.
As I’m sure you’ve probably guessed by now, I’m one of those bleeding heart liberal types that believes we should be aiming at rehabilitation and lowering the instances of reoffending rather than punishing criminals for their immoral deeds. I don’t believe that punishment at all helps us as a society. I believe that the system as it stands creates better criminals, not people ready to re-enter the work-a-day world.
But if you want a truly terrifying dungeon (and who doesn’t?), one that is built to house people and not Precious Stuff, here’s how you do it:
The cells have to be small. Very small. Claustrophobically small. A 5’x7’ cell leaves room for exactly nothing. You have a bed, a metal table and chair that are built into the wall, a toilet and a small shelf for personal effects above that toilet. You keep your clothes in a trunk under your bed.
The regimen has to be brutal. Shower twice per week. Go outside twice per week for recreation and exercise. Work your ass off six days per week at whatever shit job the prison has been commissioned to do. Fifteen minutes to pray on Sunday. Not Christian? Not my problem.
The punishments have to be severe. And when I say severe, I don’t mean “Beat you with sticks,” severe, I mean “Damage you psychologically for the rest of your life,” severe. The Hole is bigger than your average cell, but it doesn’t get any light, it doesn’t get any fresh air, it gets just enough to keep you alive, and you stay in it 24-hours a day. That may not seem like much, but it fucking gets to you. I stood in the Hole for a minute, maybe two, with the door wide open. It scared the shit out of me.
The prisoners are not people. They are prisoners. They get no rights. They get three meals a day, they get to be clean and healthy. Everything else is a privilege.
Also, if you wanted to run a prison scenario in your game, I would highly suggest adapting Vampire’s morality system and applying it to behavior. If you’re on your best behavior, you gain Privilege. When you break the rules, you get punished, and that punishment slowly breaks you, turning you into a monster.
|10||Thinking about breaking a rule|
|9||Minor, unnoticed rule break|
|8||Injury to another (accidental or otherwise)|
|7||Minor smuggling (cigarettes, food)|
|6||Major smuggling (utensils, weapons)|
|5||Intentional damage to prison property or the property of another inmate|
|4||Impassioned crime (manslaughter)|
|3||Planned crime (escape attempt, murder)|
|2||Casual, callous crime (serial murder, torture for a purpose)|
|1||Perversion or heinous act (mass murder, torture for entertainment)|
Punishments depend mostly on the sort of crime committed and whether or not the inmate is caught doing it. They could range from having to do an extra bout of cleaning duty to a week in the Hole. Most of those at 5 or below end up with extended sentences, from a few more years to a couple of decades.
Chapter Four: What Makes a Good Game vs. A Good Genre Game?
I think my scale of “What Makes a Good Comic Book Movie” works for games, too. There are games that are just really good, solid examples of gaming. And there are good Fantasy Heartbreakers. And good Space Opera games. But they aren’t necessarily the same thing; a fantasy game can be a good game without being a good Fantasy Game. Take Mouse Guard, for instance. It’s a fantasy game, for sure. You play mice with technology roughly equal to that found in the middle ages. It’s a really good game, one of the best role-playing games I’ve ever played. But it isn’t a very good fantasy game. There are no spells or orcs or trolls; just a bunch of animals. It’s not very tactically deep, which good fantasy games have at their core. It’s got a really solid narrativist slant towards character advancement that I like quite a bit, which puts it more into the realm of Good Indie Game than Good Fantasy Game. In short, it’s a really good game, but it’s not a very good fantasy game.
On the opposite end of that spectrum, I’d put D&D 3.5. It’s not a very good game, really. The rules are clunky and fit together in strange ways. There are things that make exactly no sense at all (grapple rules, anyone? item creation?) but nothing about the game really shines, except maybe how easy it is to put a new skin on it and call it something else. But no matter what sort of flavor you put on it, Type III D&D is a fantasy game at its core, and it’s a damned good one.
So what’s the difference?
Good Games are games that push the envelope, do things that games haven’t really done before, or find new and interesting ways to do things we’ve just sort of taken for granted. Nobilis does things with diceless play that exemplify what role-playing games without randomizers can do. Mouse Guard does new and interesting things with turn structure and conflict resolution. The Dramatic Unisystem rocked a really solid dramatic editing system. The Gumshoe system solved a really simple, but pervasive, problem in investigative role-playing. These are things that are revolutionary and powerful, and they’re the sort of innovations that shape the direction of gaming for many years.
Good Genre Games don’t need to be good games. They don’t need to innovate, they don’t need to do things differently or break new ground. They have to instead typify the genre they are attempting to emulate. RIFTS is not a good game, but it is a good genre game, and that is part of why it is as pervasively popular as it has been. Don’t Rest Your Head is a really good horror game, but it doesn’t really do anything innovative or definitive for gaming. It’s just a fun game about getting sleepy, then getting scared, then going crazy. I think perhaps the best example of a Good Genre Game is Exalted. The game itself is shit. The system is just a bastardization of what White Wolf has been doing for decades, the mechanical side of the game is entirely busted and the writing is poorly at best. But it captures the genre of over-the-top Shonen anime better than any game I’ve ever seen. Better, even, than Big Eyes, Small Mouth, which fits in the Good Game category.
And there are certainly games that fall into both categories. Dread, for instance, does something for horror games I’ve never seen before (actually instilling some sense of fear in a game) through a mechanic that I’d never seen used before (a Jenga tower), while perfectly capturing the essence of horror fiction. It is both a Good Game and a Good Genre Game.
If only there were more of those.
Chapter Three: Mixing it Up – Travel Wise
The intrepid heroes must travel many days by horse to reach the dungeon of Kazaakh’Thuul wherein lies the evil lich Bastaard the Badguy.
The intrepid heroes travel a day by horse, trading in their mounts for coin to pay for the ferry to the next village and hopefully enough for passage by airship or railcar across the mountains before renting camels to cross the sandy desert for six days to reach the pyramid of Kazaakh’Thuul wherein lies the evil lich Bastaard the Badguy.
Travel is boring. We tend to gloss over it because sitting in one spot for three hours mostly sucks, and we don’t want to describe the incredible ennui we experience while moving from point A to point B via sitting around doing nothing. It’s a lot more exciting when travel involves kicking the crap out of stuff while you’re moving, right?
Except that travel offers some interesting opportunities in role-playing games that we don’t often think about. As an example, take my first ride on a ferry. While it certainly doesn’t compare to the experience of walking on a castle’s battlements, it was cool to be able to finally ride on one. For some people, this isn’t a big deal at all; they take ferries every day. But living in landlocked Northern Alberta, riding a ferry was pretty awesome for me. Moreover, it gave me a chance to interact with my travelling companion in a meaningful way (and in a less meaningful media-in-my-eyeballs way), and to have a few interesting experiences regarding ferry coffee and bad café food. It was pretty great.
And most real travel doesn’t happen in one travel mode. You can’t get to most places by plane, you have to get close and then take a ferry, boat, or train and then drive or walk the rest of the way. People didn’t take wagons from one side of the continent to the other while settling Canada and the USA; they took trains, rode horses, took wagons, walked, climbed, forded rivers the hard way… There are very few occasions when one form of travel will get you where you’re going, and you’re going to need to mix and match.
How this interacts with your game is sort of up to you. You could easily just pass your players an itinerary that shows them how they get from one place to another and ask what they do during each stage. You could provide a few options, and have some interesting features plotted out for various points during various journeys. Provide situations in which the player characters have to interact with one another, because nothing else is going to happen for a while. Give the player characters an opportunity to find the magic in a form of travel they’ve never experienced before. I mean, riding a ferry isn’t a fantastic experience, but for me, it was a big deal, because it was my first time. Has your half-orc barbarian ever ridden an airship before? Probably not, so what is he or she feeling?
Chapter Two: When the Students Come to Visit – On the Topic of Mentors
We went to visit N’s school while we were in Comox, and that gave me a bit of a strange nostalgic feeling about visiting my old teachers whenever I came back to the town I graduated in. Every once in a great while, I’d stop by the school to visit Mr. D or Mr. F or Ms. W, and it was always sort of a strange experience. I mean, they’d done their job, right? They taught me enough to get me through finals, and now I had passed my finals, and was arguably an adult.
The trip got me thinking about a player character’s mentors. I’m coming at this from a very D&D-oriented viewpoint, because in D&D one of the big blanks in character creation is social areas. Every D&D character’s parents are dead so that you never, ever have to interact with them. No one was ever taught how to do their jobs, they just know, or they went to faceless schools and never had any favorite teachers or instructors. No one has ever served under a commanding officer, they were just in the army.
Mouse Guard rocks mentors in a very real way. There is, in fact, an entire chapter in character creation devoted to the mouse that taught you what you know, and there are plot hooks deep in the concept. When we were making our first round of characters for Mouse Guard, one of my players found that he liked his character’s mentor more than he liked his own character, which is, in my opinion, the definition of a great supporting character. It reminds me Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Anthony Stewart Head is easily the best actor in the series, and his character is incredibly believable, fun, scary, amusing and just a little sexy. He is, in nearly every way, more interesting than the titular character, which makes him a great background character, and adds a lot of depth to the series.
So what happens when you go back and visit a mentor who has taught you everything you know? What sort of relationship is that? There’s a pretty solid relationship gradient, from “still trying to teach you things,” to “why are you bothering me? figure it out on your own…” But trying to figure that relationship out before you ever have to go back and meet your mentor is going to add a lot to the interactions you have with him or her.
Also, mentors serve as great plot hooks. Roll a d10
- Your mentor is in trouble. Some horrible bad thing is trying to get to the player character by doing naughtybad things to people that character cares about. Go save!
- Your mentor is in trobule. Some horrible bad thing from the mentor’s past is coming back to haunt her, and she cannot deal with it alone. She needs your help!
- Your mentor is in trouble. Whatever nasty badness your party is already dealing with has decided to make him a focus for whatever evil plot they’re trying to pull off.
- Your mentor has hired you. She needs you to find a dingus of great power from the nastiest dungeon in the area, and can’t do it herself because of that back injury from a few years ago.
- Your mentor has hired you. He has a rival in town that is likely doing naughty things, and he would like you to look into it.
- Your mentor has hired you. She’s double booked herself with jobs and needs you to take one of her obligations off her hands.
- Your mentor has become a villain. He has holed up in a castle in the middle of nowhere and is sending minions out to do bad things on his behalf.
- Your mentor has become a villain. She has obtained a mystical artifact of some power and is using it to wreck havoc on everyone and everything around her.
- Your mentor has become a villain. He has begun building an army to take down the current reigning whoever of the whereplace.
- Your mentor is in trouble for becoming a villain and is hiring you to deal with her public relations problem.
Chapter One: Family Ties
Most characters in a role-playing games don’t value family at all. Chances are your character is a single child of deceased parents who raised him or herself on the mean streets of disconnection and neglect. Which is, honestly, very lazy of you. Most people don’t bother fleshing out their character’s family life at all. I know I sure don’t, but I’ve come to terms with my laziness. When I do, it’s usually as an aside, or a cute character quirk, but most of my characters don’t have attachments to people, because those really seem to get in the way of adventure.
Which I guess is sort of the point of this section. Family is just going to get in your way, and that’s a good thing. Knowing how your parents are and what they do for a living, knowing where you have brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, grandparents, great grandparents, and cousins is going to make adventuring a little tough. I mean, look at all those potential Bad Guy Targets. Moreover, what happens if you don’t really like most of your family?
I grew up pretty privileged in that I actually get along with my mom and dad pretty well. My brothers are both wicked people. I don’t really have a lot of contact with my extended family, but I know who they are and what they’re about, generally. Most of them are Mormon (I am not), with the exception of J, who converted to Catholicism when she married her beau. Most have big families, with the exception of T, who came out of the closet a few years ago and whose son is still dealing. Most are well adjusted, with the exception of DL, who held his children hostage in a motel with a vacuum attachment, once.
See, and this is the sort of thing your character can bring to the table if you have a chance to broaden out the family history beyond whatever is on your character sheet. Who is your Aunt Betty? What’s she about? What does she do? What’s one story you could tell about her that would make the rest of the table go “Wha?”
As an example, I’m going to flesh out a character’s uncle, and then leave you a blank template to copy/paste and use at your leisure.
Name: Uncle Bartlebus
Hobby: Music. Bart’s had a lute in his attic for years and every once in a while he’ll bust it out and play a few songs from when he had longer hair and a grudge.
Physically: Bart’s a huge guy, and strong. Thatch is heavy, and it goes on roofs. Age is starting to show around the temples, though, and some wrinkles have begun to show up around the eyes.
Mentally: Insecure and a little attention-grabby. Immature. Wishes he’d gone along with a travelling musician’s troupe when he was younger but has a wife and kids to look after now.
One Story: That time he drove the wagon too fast and lamed the horse two days out of town, and we all had to hitch a ride with some strangers who we were convinced were going to kill and eat us.
Fill this out five times, and you have a rough skeleton of a family going.